Does circumcision mark religious belonging onto a male body? And if so, is this marking legitimate, especially in the case of young boys? In addition to issues such as the integrity of the body and possible medical benefits and risks, the question of how circumcision relates to religious freedom, both of parents and of boys, has been under debate in Europe in recent years. Critics claim that circumcision limits a boy’s religious freedom, because it makes it more difficult to come to an independent decision about his religious affiliation or to convert, and unfairly ties him to the religion for which he was circumcised. In this view, the uncircumcised body is seen as a religiously neutral body, while circumcision represents an illegitimate religious mark on a body that is as yet religiously undefined.

A high-profile example of this claim occurred in the 2012 verdict of the district court in the city of Cologne, Germany. In the case of a doctor who circumcised a four-year-old boy at the request of his Muslim parents, the court declared the circumcision harmful and a violation of the rights of children. The verdict states that circumcision “changes the child’s body permanently and irreparably” and, moreover, that “This change runs contrary to the interests of the child in deciding his religious affiliation independently later in life.”

A major factor in this perceived tension between religious freedom and circumcision is the implicit understanding of religion that underlies it. The notion that religion is primarily, or even solely, a private, individual conviction, and that religious conversion, as a consequence, is a change of mind about certain unproven truth claims, is widespread in European culture. This is highly problematic. Historians and other scholars of religion have demonstrated that the concept of religion as individual belief is a modern one, which developed out of a particular type of European, Protestant-Christian thought. Defining religion as individual belief excludes many other possible ways of understanding religion, including more collective and identity-focused views that see religion as akin to family, ethnicity, race, or nationality. Such perspectives regard religion as something into which people are born, rather than something on which they make a decision “later in life” after gathering all the relevant information. Seeing religion only as individual belief thus restricts its meaning in a culturally specific and normative way.

What is rarely realized in this by-now-familiar origin story is that in being a product of Christian history, this concept of religion has its roots in longstanding controversies about male circumcision. To arrive at the Christian idea of religion as belief, circumcision has often been “good to think with” and a subject of debate from the earliest beginnings of Christianity. During the centuries in which it was formed, the concept of religion that is used to weigh the legitimacy of male circumcision in legal views such as those expressed in Cologne was entangled with discussions of, and often rejections of, male circumcision. Circumcision was seen as a physical practice that symbolized the focus on the body and on external ritual characteristic of religious “others.” Since the dominant understanding of religion as internal belief is closely tied with criticism of circumcision, it is severely compromised when used to measure the legitimacy of circumcision today.

There is not enough space here to discuss the entirety of this long development, but some examples can illustrate the ways in which male circumcision and Christian self-understanding are entwined.

When scholars of religion want to trace the concept of “religion as belief” as far back as they can, they tend to end up at the letters written by the apostle Paul in the first century, which became part of the New Testament. Similarly, when scholars of circumcision want to trace back the origins of Christian attitudes toward circumcision, they also end up with Paul. The connection between the two is neatly illustrated by the metaphor of the “circumcision of the heart,” which occurs in Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom. 2:29). This metaphor is often understood as reflecting both Paul’s rejection of “ethnic” or “legalistic” religion, in favor of an internalization of religion, as well as an internalization of circumcision, and therefore a rejection of physical Jewish circumcision.

Although this interpretation is very common, it does not reflect Paul’s actual criticism, which was directed at the circumcision of gentiles, not Jews. Later Christians of the second, third, and fourth centuries, however, polemicized against Jewish circumcision in general, and pitted their own religious convictions against this practice. They presented their own tradition as being superior for relying on faith, rather than on external practice. Polemics against circumcision were a way of constituting and expressing a new Christian self-understanding. The Christian adoption and transformation of the originally Jewish notion of circumcision of the heart—making true circumcision something internal rather than external and physical—entailed a fundamental criticism of the practice of circumcision and became a way to criticize Jews and Judaism. At a very early time, therefore, circumcision and belief became tied together in this developing Christian self-conception.

This trajectory continued, and reached a significant point in early modern times, when the European world started to open up and increase its awareness of other peoples and their ways of life, especially in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This new knowledge allowed the formation of the ideas that religion is found all over the world, is something all human beings do, and that there are many different religions.

In this new world, it became important to distinguish between real religion and inferior kinds of religion that could, for example, be labeled as magic or superstition. As part of this growing interest in foreign cultures and other religions, a new genre of ethnographic literature became popular, which described the rituals and customs of European Jews. This genre was popular with Christian audiences from the sixteenth until the eighteenth century. In these ethnographic descriptions of Jews, circumcision features as a much discussed topic. While some more dispassionate descriptions can be found, circumcision is mainly treated in a polemical way. It was criticized for a number of reasons, including because it was thought to be cruel or because it was performed only on boys. Most importantly, it was attacked as a superstition, as the wrong kind of religion.

This was part of a general image of Judaism as a cult rife with superstitions and outlandish customs. Jews were portrayed as enemies intent on harming Christianity, while misunderstanding the true meaning of the Bible. In describing Judaism as a religion of absurd customs and superstitions—circumcision prominent among them—it served as a foil for Protestant Christianity, which had been freed of such improper forms of religion and focused instead on faith.

In the early modern period, much like the beginning of Christianity, Christians thus understood their own status as a religion in contrast to the traditions of others, and used Jewish circumcision “to think with” and to understand their own superiority. This way of thinking continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when circumcision remained important to developing notions of religion.

When religion came to be seen as a separate sphere, to be distinguished from the nation, politics, economics, from science and arts, for example, the same dynamics that shaped this development of religion also affected circumcision. Could Jews be citizens of the modern nation-state and still practice circumcision? How far should tolerance go; which deviations from the Christian norm should be tolerated and how deviant was circumcision? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, circumcision, for many Europeans, came to exemplify the stubborn resistance of Judaism against modernity.

The contemporary debate, therefore, continues previous constructions and oppositions in various ways. While many may assume that the concept of religion used to measure the legitimacy of circumcision is a neutral, “secular” one, it in fact relies on a crypto-Christian understanding of what religion and religious conversion are. The same could be said about the understanding of the (non)circumcised body. Positing the uncircumcised male body as religiously neutral disregards possible Jewish perspectives that would see such a body as non-Jewish, and therefore as embodying a distinct ethno-religious identity, rather than as a blank canvas. The assumption that there is a physical space outside religion, a space that is equally non-Jewish, non-Muslim, and non-Christian, is one that again makes sense within a specific Protestant-Christian distinction between religion and secularity, but not necessarily beyond it. The imposition of this space on others continues to define them, and the practice of circumcision, through terms that derive their validity from a Christian worldview.